Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The First Geek Wars - XRP, Crypto currencies and Blockchain

Last April I was given two books for my birthday; Sapiens and Homo Deus by Professor Yuval Noah Harari.   They have been on the best sellers lists so you may know them.   The books are an original take on the social development of the human species.  For me they were particularly important because they explained for the first time why the big bang of creativity, that happened about 40 -60 thousand years ago, is so closely connected to the emergence of religion.   Professor Harari postulates that shared belief enabled our species to congregate and act in huge crowds that overwhelmed our Neanderthal cousins and wiped out many other species.  With shared beliefs Homo Sapiens was able to work together in societies of thousands with tribal kings and queens, cities with hierarchical social structures, coinage and libraries.  He says our invention of Nationhood, Democracy, Monotheism, Capitalism, Limited Companies and modern liberal Humanism are all dependent on our species unique gift to agree to share the same beliefs.  The Dollar, just paper no longer backed by gold, is also a shared concept conceived in the minds of men and women who also share agreements about laws, National boundaries and definitions of citizenship.

Apple: Symbol of God's Knowledge (scriptures) or Man's Knowledge (Science)?  Image: Waking Times

Harari says that Sit Isaac Newton, who lived when notions of humanism were still embryonic, did not go to the scriptures to ask why an apple falls to the ground.  Generations previous to him had been told that Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden for eating an apple of the Tree of Knowledge. Newton asked himself, not God, why an apple falls to the ground.  Humanism is rooted in a belief that mankind's fate is determined by looking inside ourselves, not to God, for answers about how to govern world and what will make us happy.  Humanism sanctifies the self, hence the title of his second book is "Homo Deus".  

The last few chapters of Homo Deus are devoted to Prof Harari's personal observations about the development of Dataism, a new set of beliefs that he sees as replacing Humanism.  He says Dataism undermines our belief in the importance of our own personal values and free will. 

Data-ism pic: techvshuman.com
Dataism is the giving up of free will to machines that collect use algorithms that guide our choices after collecting data from us. For instance my choice of books to read is greatly influenced by Amazon which owns a profiles of my book reading habits as well as the profiles of millions of other customers.  The Amazon machine uses algorithmsis to accurately predict which books I might like to read next.  I have transferred my belief that I know which books to read to Amazon's algorithms! In future societies our self driving cars may include route planning algorithms that tell us what times and which routes to take to work, our Fitbits might measure our health and tell us about suitable medications, diets, exercise regimes and when to take our rests and holidays.  Machines are already able to use data to make extremely accurate predictions about what makes us happy, how we will vote and which recreational activities would suit our personalities. Dating agencies use algorithms to choose our dates, perhaps one day they will be telling us who we should avoid marrying.  Studies have shown that Facebook algorithms using "likes" are more predictive about our lifestyle choices than our closet family, in fact machines are becoming better at predicting our behaviour than we are ourselves. Young people are more at home with dataism than the older generations and are already willing to place more of their decision making in the hands of machines than themselves  

Selfies or Sharies?   Image: Lifehacker Australia
The rise of Dataism coincides with young people giving up privacy and politics, it is natural to their way of thinking to share selfies and data about themselves across a global landscape of social media because they freely accept their individuality is part of a global Zeitgeist.  Perhaps one reason they voted to stay in the EU and rejected the Brexit mantra about "taking back control" was that they like the way the world works and want politics to be organised for them not by them?

A new word in the vocabulary of Dataism is Blockchain.  Blockchain is a decentralized dynamic database ledger that is made up of units (blocks) strung on a thread (chain).  Each data entry is only added after it has been collectively checked at nodes across the internet.  Every validated update is final and immutable.  Nobody can tamper with an entry has been agreed by the nodes, many technologists call that "digital immutability".  The immutability creates trust, without needing the reputation of a central authority such as a company or bank ledger to establish that trust. When every participant on a blockchain network understands that data is collectively approved, immutable and incorruptible they inherently trust the data. 

"the most valuable property of blockchains — the ability to reach a shared truth that everyone agrees on without intermediaries or a centralized authority." Josh Nussbaum 

IBM have worked with Wallmart to reduce a food tracing process from six days to about two seconds.  The immutability of the record keeping is being used for Peer to Peer voting, Smart Contracts, Phytosanitary Surveillance, Smart Insurance, Medical records, Collecting royalties, Organic Certification, Crowd funding, Land registration and Financial ledgers.    Like many new technologies Blockchain is "disruptive", a term they use for new technologies that disrupt ways we organise ourselves.  For instance Uber and self-driving cars are disrupting and making the taxi business obsolete, Air b&b are disrupting Hotel business. Blockchain will disrupt the need for middle management in many professions and destroy many white collar jobs.  On the plus side it saves time, reduces errors and distributes power away from the top to all levels of an organisation. 
Blockchain started in 2010, shortly after the banking crisis of 2007, when a techno geek called Satoshi Nakamoto used blockchain technology to create a virtual currency that needed no banks. Each unit of the block chain was called a Bitcoin, but unlike our dollar coins which are managed and issued through banks, each Bitcoin have a autonomous identity which include a complete record of changing value, location, transactions and ownership.  The number of coins was predetermined by the length of the chain, Nakamoto's chain was 21 million blocks limiting the number of Bitcoins to 21 million, but each block (coin) can be divided a into 100,000 smaller bits called Satoshis. (100,000 Satoshis = one Bitcoin).

Satoshi Nakamoto, the "anonymous" creator of Bitcoin pic: emchat.net

Bitcoin itself is rather controversial, it is a stand alone currency that has been hard to buy and costly to use.  The transactions in the chain get congested and often take hours. It has not been a big practical success amongst the general  shopping public or retailers.

Nakamoto wanted a currency that was dispersed and outside the central control of the banks. He set it up so that one new coin would be minted every ten minutes and handed out to the first computer to crack a code.   The process of cracking the codes is called "mining" and the difficulty of the code is directly related to the competition to crack the code. As the value has gone up so has the difficulty.  The first Bitcoins could be won by small time geeks with a single laptop, today racks of  computers have to be kept running for months before they can win one bitcoin.  To quote the Guardian "each individual bitcoin transaction uses almost 300KWh of electricity – enough to boil around 36,000 kettles full of water. Although power consumption of other payment networks is harder to isolate, one of Visa’s two US data centres reportedly runs on about 2% of the power required by bitcoin. Between them, those two data centres conduct around 200m transactions a day; the bitcoin network handles fewer than 350,000."

Success at mining of Bitcoin has become directly related to the cost of electricity supply.  Most of the newly minted Bitcoins go to China where electricity is cheap. Contrary to Nakamoto's original intention control of the system has not been dispersed across the Bitcoin community;  97% of Bitcoin stock is asleep in the crypto wallets of 4% of the community.  These crypto barons, known as "whales" by the less well off in the community, are hugely rich on paper but cannot sell their coins without saturating the market and making their fortunes valueless.  Their position in the blockchain nodes give them opportunities to leverage high transaction fees from the remaining 4% of users who are mostly small investors in the Bitcoin bubble. Bitcoin has failed to deliver a user friendly bank-free trading platform or create Nakamoto's utopian dream of dispersed control of the currency across the community.  

Bitcoin Mining Factory

Collectively miners use more electricity than a countries the size of Argentina or Ireland

pic CNBC..com
China's government are alarmed at the electricity demands on poor rural economies and are clamping down on Bitcoin mining, recently the factories were ordered to make an 'orderly exit' from China because they have consumed 'huge amounts of resources and stoked speculation of virtual currencies'.

In the last decade a geekish community has developed around the ethos of Nakamoto's Bitcoin vision.  So far they have created 1,500 new digital currencies, some are ideological, many include innovative smart functionality that can be incorporated into the software of smart contracts, retail sites and internal multinational ledgers, others are get rich quick scams. Most are not regular managed businesses with proper business plans.  The geeks do not sell their new digital coins to the public for dollars or pounds, the value is determined by their value compared with Bitcoins or Etheriums that are kept in "cryto wallets" and used to buy other coins on unregulated crypto exhanges run by the geeks.  Anonymity and Secrecy seems to be highly valued by the community, an example of a popular new smart currency is Verge. Verge  encrypts both the transaction and the IP addresses of the senders and receivers, making Verge financial transaction entirely invisable and unhackable. Added together digital currency have a market cap value of about 850 billion dollars and the unregulated crypto exchanges have become a haven for hidden stored wealth, black market payments, money laundering and tax evasion under the protection of a secretive anarchist geek cult.

Blockchain Currencies Pic TechCrunch
In this very funny video we see how crypto geeks buy crypto currencies for the crypto wallets.

This TED video is the perfect introduction to what blockchain and Bitcoin are (take special note of how the speaker embeds his ideology with his factual description, it is very relevant to my story):

Bitcoin may have been a practical failure but the blockchain ledgers Nakamoto envisaged are becoming smarter technologies that the financial institutions will integrate with the fiat currencies that Nakamoto wanted to escape from.  It is inevitable that one day everything will come under the regulatory control of the financial regulators. 

Following the news of Bitcoins stratospheric value increase during 2017 crypto coinage have developed an iconic status amongst get-rich dreamers of the X factor generation, especially in Asia. At the end of the year the unregulated crypto exchanges were swamped with hoards of small investors eager to get on the bandwagon. In an interview the CEO of Binance, a Chinese crypto exchange, said they received 250,000 new registrations in one hour.  The applicants are largely men aged 25 - 35 flocking into an unregulated wild-west, some are maxing out their credit cards in the expectation of buying their first Lamborghinis, others bring huge investments of tens of thousands of pounds in the expectation of becoming billionaires.

A crypto-coin band
A Danish firm called BiChip has recently released a microchip implant which customers can use to store their crypto wallet under their skin.  The chip use smart cryptocurrency payment systems which will allow peer to peer payments across the world without a need to be connected to Visa or a bank account.

BiChip will implant your crypto-wallet under your skin

The new get rich quick investors are not geeks and they do not care about Nakamoto's utopian dream of a currency without banks, in fact they want to convert their cryptos back to Dollars, Yen and Euros to buy more consumer goods on sites like Amazon and E-bay.  Before Christmas I found a regulated trading platform where I could buy some cryptocurrencies for cash off my credit card.  I bought an 850 dollar spread: Litecoin $200, Etherium $200, and Bitcoin $450.  A day later  the Litecoin had doubled in value to about 450 dollars.  I withdrew my Litecoin profits and reinvested $200 in another new currency called Ripple/XRP.   I sold my Bitcoin because it was rising at a much slower rate than these lesser known digitals.  Two days later my Ripple had grown by 200%, two weeks later my Ripple had grown by 850% ($1,800). During 2017 Ripple grew by an astounding 45,000%.   Bitcoin grew a measly 1,300%.  In the end all my investments were in Ripple but the prices have fallen dramatically in the first two weeks of January and I have been left with a small loss.

Astounding growth of Ripple (green Line) against Bitcoin (bottom line)
Ripple Growth in Green. Bitcoin the bottom line and Etherium Purple
When I started trading I had only heard of Bitcoin, I did not know I was stepping on to the front line of the first geek war.  On www.EToro.com there is a forum where us innocent noobs (their word for new investors) exchange information.  Each crypto currency on Etoro has its own forum, the discussions are  multi-lingual (each message has a Google translate button).  The multi-ethnic forum was abuzz with excitement about the fast growth of Ripple.  Ripplemania is extremely childish, a bit like watching Gogglebox or bathing in a sea of group hysteria, and there is a whole new language to learn.  As the price rise lots of messages appear about "going to the moon" and putting in orders to buy a "Lambo" (Lamborghini). 


As soon as the prices behaved oddly the mood changes to dark talk of Whales swimming in to manipulate the market and harvest their investments out of the pockets of the little fish (that's us!).  Whales are big investors that have the money to scam the market through price manipulation.  These rich owners can buy enough crypto currencies with their massive Bitcoin wealth (remember the  exchanges do not accept dollars or Euro) to "pump and dump" the other coins.  They put enough money into the market to make the price rise (a "bull trap") and a rush of new investors pile in and push up the price further, the whales then dump their coins back into the market at a higher price than they paid.  The buyers then panic and the market crashes leaving the fat money-rich whales with the opportunity to buy the same coins back at a lower price.   

Befuddled Crypto Investor Picture: Crytocoinnews.com
After the whales arrive and start feeding the cry goes up in hundreds of messages "Hodl, Hodl"  (Hold on for your Life!).  "Don't panic, the whales are here.  ".
"Hodl, Hodl,  Don't panic, the whales are harmless if you don't sell!"  
It is not only the big guys that do it, small investors form groups to collectively scam the market. 

And according to analysis in this article the organisers of the scam rings scam their own members as well as the public.  The crypto currency world is dirty.

The forums are a good place to learn about markets.  Graphs are exchanged and estimates of huge gains that will come after the fall, some come from professionals like Abdullah Almohsen

Abdulla blesses us when we ask him questions

I learnt so much about Bull Flags and Bollinger lines, but the graphs they use are meant for regulated markets and do not include predictions for the behaviour of the Whales.  Members of the forums don't want to wait for their money and soon become bored and sarcastic.

To be fair the investors are very good humoured even when there rockets are not reaching the moon

Every now and again the exuberant mood is spoilt by visitors who come in during a downturn to lace us with abusive language for being duped into buying the "S...t coin" (Ripple).  At first I did not understand.  This message is a typical example (I can't help noticing how similar he looks to the alluring speaker in the TED lecture above?).
Diatribe from the Geek community 

The iconoclastic CEO of Ripple is called Brad Garlinghouse.  He driving his company through all the values and taboos of the crypto geeks that have lived for years in their unregulated Bitcoin exchanges.  The anti bank crypto fanatics tells us "Ripple is not "mined!",  "Ripple Labs simply built a chain of 100 billion links and sold the coins in a scam to cream the market",   "Most coins have been sold to institutions, Banks and Credit companies who will swindle you, the other half are held and under the  control of Brad who will control the price!",   "Brad's company has centralised control over the Nodes that verify the transactions!",   "Brad is a control freak!"  Everybody ignores these notices because we invested to get rich quick.  We approve of Brad's plan of integrating crypto currencies with the institutions of the real world, it sounds like a good project we can all believe in.  Brad's plans looks like a recipe for making us money and we don't like whales.  We want the scammers to be regulated and are pleased to hear that Brad strategically employs an Americans ex-financial regulator on his management team.

Brad's strategy has been working a treat with the millions of new get-rich-quick investors who are appearing on the geek unregulated exchanges. The exchanges cannot cope with their volumes and are closing their doors to the newcomers, if they had opened the doors the price of Ripple would have gone even higher!  Every time the price of  XRP (Ripple tokens) goes up 1 dollar the value of Brad's company's stockpile of unsold coins rises by 55 Billion!  In December the price XRP rose from 0.25 to 3.25, that was worth 175 billion to Brad!.  On 2nd Jan I read that Ripple's biggest shareholder had become the 31st richest person in the world, on the 3rd of Jan he had jumped the queue to become the fifth richest (above Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook).

Brad Garlinghouse puts on his suit and becomes a lovable photogenic smoothy with a silver tongue who tours the news stations name dropping about his meetings with the Bank of England, Paypal, Amex and Visa.  The more he talks the more the Bitcoin geeks hate him and the more people flock to buy Ripple.

Brad tells us Ripple coins are programmed to be an international inter-currency for banks. Every year the world sends more than $150 trillion across borders.  On Ripples Rapid-net  Dollars fed by banks in New York arrive 3 seconds later the money in Tokyo as Yen. On their three second journey they briefly become Brad's privatised XRP currency.  Brad's first objective is to replace the out of date SWIFT payment scheme presently used by banks.  , the SWIFT payment scheme depends on a messaging system between pools of money around the world, Brad tells us that  and the SWIFT payment system ties up 27 trillion dollars and takes up to 5 days to complete.  After the switch is complete every pound that travels to Russia to become a Rouble will briefly have been an XRP; every Euro that travels to Japan to become a Yen will have become an XRP,  every Dollar that travels to India to become a Rupee will briefly have become an XRP.   The used XRPs will be bought and sold through XRP liquidity exchanges that Brad has strategically placed around the five continents.  

Brad's system cost .0004 dollars per transaction, takes 3 seconds and he can manage 15,000 transactions per second.  Bitcoin's system costs 28 dollars, takes  66 minutes and can only manage 32 transactions a second and they hate to work with the banks.  Its a no brainer really.

Brad's adverts are quite uncomplicated to understand and demonstrate that none of the geek currencies can match Ripples' performance.


Brad has put together a management team of Financial and Silicon Valley celebs.

He uses his new money to poach executives from SWIFT. (Marjan Delatine, previously employed by SWIFT as their customer engagement manager, is now on to his team).  SWIFT have (had?) 11,000 banks on its books, Brad has about 100, but he knows someone who will introduce him to the other 10,900.  SWIFT are in panic, they are upgrading their systems but it is much too little too late.  Last week new banks announced MoneyGram are testing Ripple/XRP; Moneygram are second largest money transfer group in the world, 

Money gram are well connected to hundreds of other banks Brad is interested to get to know

but Brad already knows most of them anyway.

Announcements are expected soon about joint ventures between Ripple with Amex, Visa, Paypal and Western Union. It does not end there, DMM, a Japanese version of Amazon have opened and exchange selling XRP.  Rumours are that Brad is in talks with Amazon, Apple Pay, Ali(baba)-pay and Google-pay.     Mobile phone users will be using Brad's currency too.  Like the other cryptos Ripple have a crypto wallet for personal use, but Brad's is going to be more user friendly, cheaper, work faster and have more scalability than his rivals.  The golden goals of Bitcoin's founders are already in Brad's sights and they do not have the technology to fight back.

You would have thought so much good news would have sent the price of XRP soaring and until Jan 4 it did .  On January 4 the price of XRPs had jumped from 0.25 to 3.2 in under 21 days.  Everyone was expecting that Coinbase, a geek exchange that controls 40% of crypto wallet sales, would announce that they would start trading with XRP.   It didn't happen, instead Coinbase made an announcement that the  rumours were untrue and it had no intention of adding any more coins (perhaps it was that they could not handle the extra trade, perhaps it was political).  The market for Ripples fell

Then the Korean government announced a crack down on unregulated Crypto markets (Koreans owned 40% of the XRPs in circulation)

Then CoinMarketCap.com excluded Koreans exchanges from their valuation of XRP coins, the Koreans had been paying a 50% premium for XRP.  The rate of the fall of XRP accelerated.

All the big names in the crypto world were punished, but for weeks XRP has been punished harder than the others.  This mystifies me: surely a crypto currency with a technology that is being adopted for testing money transfers by the biggest banks in the world, managerial team, superior technology, money and lots of good news stories in the pipeline is a better investment than hippy dreams of a world without National currencies and banks?  To me investing in Bitcoin is a bit like investing in a Kodak Film factory when the rest of the world has already moved on to using digital cameras, it ain't going to end happily. But the Ripple/XRP price rose and crashed faster and longer than any other currency in crypto history; in less that three weeks the price went up from $0.25 to $3.2, in the following two weeks it came crashing back down to less than a 0.80.   You could see the pumping and dumping process occurring as the price dropped, this freaked me out and drained my confidence.

I had invested money from a pot I had put aside for a developmental project, more money for my project would have been very useful.  For a while 5K had turned in 20K+, when  I left the market I was back down to 4K, a small but affordable loss. This chart is such accurate description of the emotional roller-coaster we all experience, although in my case I felt just disappointment rather than anger or depression afterwards.

Millions had come in at the top and bet all they had, one messenger told us he had lost all his money and his girlfriend.  I am sure there are worse stories.  Such is the way that dreams of making enough money from "cryptos" to buy Lambos shatter, leaving the losers scammed, penniless and friendless.

One Whale sunk the market by pumping and dumping a billion XRP over a two days.

Geeks investigating the crash afterwards found that it had been caused by one "whale" (identity unknown) who owned a billion XRP.  Ripple will be fine and in some ways the Whale has done Ripple a favour by dispersing his assets to millions of new buyers.  The price has recovered a third of its losses.  Why is this possible?  If we were discussing the value of the Dollar we could look at their their economic performance and exports against the performance of the EU and Euro.  If we wanted to know how much to pay for shares in Amazon or Apple we could look at their sales records, sales projections and profitability of the company.  The value of shares an oil company can be determined by how much oil is in the wells it owns and likely company profits over a given space of time; after the Deepwater Horizon disaster the shares of BP was adjusted down to account for the 42 billion that that the company had to pay in compensation. It is a salutary thought that a 1 dollar rise in Ripple's value is worth more than all the compensation that BP paid.

In the conversations on the Etoro forum there is a lot discussion about "Market Cap".  Market Cap is calculated by multiplying the number of coins in circulation times the value, for instance there are 10,000 Bitcoins minted so far worth about 16,000 each making Bitcoin's market cap 16K X 10k = $120 Billion. The geeks have even set up a website called www.CoinMarketCap.com listing the market cap of each digital currency.

They come on the forums and tell us that Ripple XRP can never have the same marketcap as Bitcoin. In their fantasy world things are measured in relation to Bitcoin.  The strange world of Crypto valuation returns us to Harari's thesis that successful societies are built strong shared beliefs.

Former Nasdaq Chief, Glenn Hutchins, has compared the cryptocurrency battle to the beginning of the internet but added that  The price is a distraction – rather you should focus on the means of exchange. It’s a very small nascent property that has potential to be transformative....I just really think people are missing the point. They should be talking about the companies. It’s the biggest opportunity I’ve seen because the two most important things are business information and value."

Ripples plans to be the Google of Blockchain currencies.  The company set out with this goal, they made their blockchain 100 billion XRP coins long, enough to give 12 coins to every living person on the planet.  When XRPs are being used on Ripple's Rapid-net system it really does not matter how much value they are given as long as the value remains constant during the 4 second transaction period.  To decide the value of XRP before the system is up is pure speculation, if it succeeds Ripple coins will become first privatised global reserve currency in history and what that means nobody quite knows because it has never been done before!

Another main theme of Harari's books is that social change often evolves through a path of social entrapment, the most commonly cited example being the birth of agriculture when our nomadic species exchanged their hunter gather existence for an unhealthy lifestyle of relentlessly harder labour on low grade subsistence diets, a state of human unhappiness that lasted millennia.  Brad calls his internet revolution "the Internet of Value", we will embrace it because it is going to be economically beneficial, but it also setting us on the fast track for the exchanging our Humanistic values for more and more Dataism.  The first geek wars will determine whether "the internet of values" will be under the control of practical businessmen with centralised plans perhaps beyond the control of National governments or hippies with Utopian dreams of an unregulated world without banks, some people might think that both alternatives lead us towards mass unemployment and social breakdown.

Some advice about making Investments
I did not intend to write an article that would encourage others to invest in crypto-currencies.  If you do decide to have a flutter please be aware that any investment in cryptos is very risky because it is an unregulated market where there are many dubious groups and practices that set out to scam the unwary.  The nascent market in blockchain technology will provide very good opportunities for new companies to grow very rapidly, even the good companies will be dragged down by the scandals and others will struggle to survive.   You could get lucky and invest in the next Google but it is equally likely that you will lose all your money through no fault of your own. 

I personally steer away from coins that are trying to make their transactions invisible to the authorities and towards coins that are willing to work within the regulatory frameworks which are going to be imposed.  My current favourites are Ripple, Stella and Etherium.


Block Chain Ecosystem by Josh Nussbaum https://techcrunch.com/2017/10/16/mapping-the-blockchain-project-ecosystem/

Bitcoin Mining in China  Ihttps://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/27/bitcoin-mining-consumes-electricity-ireland

XRP by Numbers https://xrphodor.wordpress.com/2018/01/15/xrp-by-the-numbers-2018-benchmarks/

XRP - how it works https://xrphodor.wordpress.com/2018/01/11/tokens-trust-on-the-xrp-ledger/amp/?__twitter_impression=true



A ripple Analysis https://medium.com/tbis-weekly-bits/i-see-you-xrp-fcf151feb96d 

4% OWN 97% OF BITCOIN AS A STORE FOR WEALTH http://uk.businessinsider.com/bitcoin-97-are-held-by-4-of-addresses-2018-1?r=US&IR=T

The Ripple Whale : https://ripplenews.tech/2018/01/19/mysterious-whale-is-manipulating-the-market/

Monday, 18 September 2017

Come Back to Sorrento

Come Back To Sorrento

We landed in Rome and travelled down Italy to just north of Naples where there is the birth place mozzarella cheese, pizza and the little town of Caserta with its palace built by the king of Naples.  The king's instructions to Vanvittali, his Dutch Architect, were to build a palace that would be bigger and more beautiful that Versailles.  The building has over 1,200 rooms and is a lesson in Italian good taste and style. I have never seen ceiling paintings so full of vibrancy.  I chose to copy this gilded Angel because it has so much to teach me.

From the front of the palace a pond runs for over two kilometres up into a craggy slope, along the way there are interludes for fountains and sculpted fish from whose mouths the water gushes into pools where sleepy carp swim.

Alas our half day visit was much too short to really see everything let alone give me time to make many drawings.

Later in the day we arrived at our villa in Sorrento which was the Ground floor apartment in conspicuously aristocratic house perched on a rock overlooking town.  It was built in 1889. This is a view of the driveway to the back entrance

In the garden we could drink wine in the cool September air whilst looking across the bay of Naples towards Vesuvius and Capri.

Sometimes we were visited by a feral cat with stripes on its legs that asked us for food and slept on Michael's bed.

The first days in Sorrento were cold, wet and windy, but it did not matter because we went on drives along the cliff hugging coast roads to Almalfi.  The rain and mist made the views very beautiful but gave me little opportunity to make many drawings other than this one small sketch of a grotto in a rock crevice high above the mountain clinging town of Positano.

One of the best excursions was to Paestum which is an important archaeological site that boasts three of the best preserved Greek temples in the world, lizards scamper over the ancient stones and there is a scattering of lovely trees across the hundreds of acres of ruin.  There is also an excellent museum that needs hours of attention and an ancient church.  

Towards the end of our stay the days were long and warm and I could walk the streets of Sorrento with my drawing pad.  Tasso Square is the small main square, on one side is a view that looks down the cliffs to the port below (I made this drawing on my last visit in 2015).

On the other side of the square is a statue of Torquaot Tasso

and in the area there are traps with elegant ponies waiting for tourists.

Around the square are several restaurants, Caf├ęs and narrow alleyways full of boutiques selling lemoncello and hand made gifts.

Because the space is so limited the narrow roads get jammed with gridlocked cars through which scooters scuttle too and fro.  Scooter culture is a lot of fun to watch.  I only had time for one drawing

Unsurprisingly I spent more time making sketches of the lovely young women that sit with their boyfriends serenely sipping coffee and eating lemon cakes in the shade of palm trees and umbrella pines, 

and there was the added distraction of so many skimpily dressed teenagers,

which means one hardly notices the old men

For me the town is paradise because I can spend a lot of time in the churches where I can draw carved sculptures of Angels and Madonna's.  The theme of Madonna has always been a favourite subject for me, it has every challenge an artist wants; there are the problems of constructing the dynamic relationship of two bodies in space, expressing their relationship and the ephemeral  beauty of the moment.  Then there is the likeness.

In one church I found a black Madonna adorata  holding a handkerchief because she is weeping after the death of her son

When you start looking you find the Madonnas of Sorrento are very busy, every church have her doing different things.  Here she is blessing a little girl who has a sash with Sorrento written on it.

People come from all over the world to be married in Sorrento.  This Madonna is Julie Burge who came from Liverpool to attend her friends wedding.


It is a common site to find brides doing a tour of Sorrento posing with their new husbands in the doorways of Churches. This is how I met Terry and Emma Harkin who were also from Liverpool, I wondered if perhaps they were Julie Burge's friends.


When the Madonna is standing there is the extra problem of distribution of weight and balance 

This is a sitting German Madonna

The male Madonna is a theme rarely seen in Christian iconography.  This is a pity because the way fathers bond with their children is particularly subtle and beautiful subject, such as Georgia sleeping on her father's shoulders.

Another artistic test are children's faces.  Over the last two years I have put a lot of effort into understanding how they are different from adults faces, this is another drawing of Georgia

and these are studies Adele, a Russian child whose family now live in Milano

On the last day, as I was making my way to draw a Madonna in a church Mami had told me about, I met Angarina a Romanian Gypsy I had given money to the day before, she smiled at me and I could not resist to stop to make some drawings of her. 

Angarina was the most beautiful looking mother I saw in Sorrento

Her child was delighted that I had stopped and together they subjected me to the full force of Gypsy charm and cunning.  Whilst I made my drawings Angarina extracted money out of me with stories of her four starving children, meanwhile her happy child raided my bags for pencils and paper, pole danced round my legs and helped her mother beg of money from passing tourists.    As it was the last day I gave her one of our smart hessian Two Bad Mice bags, her child seemed to adore my gift and I helped them transfer their things from a battered carrier bag but as soon as my back was turned my gift was put in the bin and the plastic carrier bag was retrieved.  I ended up giving them a bone china mug which seemed to be an ideal replacement for the broken plastic cup they had been using to collect money and we parted friends.

Mami's church was preparing for a big society wedding, inside the church a small orchestra were playing music and a opera singer practising Ave Maria.  Instead of drawing the "dead" Madonna Mami had told me about I found myself sitting on the steps drawing the guests as they arrived.

The bride arrived in a black car and slipped into the church to sounds of Vivaldi, I had no time to draw her dress in detail, all I can say is that it was perhaps the most lavishly beautiful I have ever seen.

As I lingered  listening outside to the ethereal music coming from within a guest emerged with his child.

Danilo told me the bride's family came from near Naples, the bride was called Roberta.

My last moments in Sorrento were spent looking through the great church doors and down the nave to where Roberta and her husband were being blessed in front of  a huge cross flanked with six foot high Altar candles, and above it all and gazing down and blessing their future was one of their glorious carved and crowned Madonnas, it seemed a fitting end to my short stay. 

You will probably have noticed from my account that I get to know the people I draw, this is intentional.  On the one hand I always avoid people who pose or ask me to make drawings of them, on the other hand even when my subjects are across a crowded space they always pick up that I am sketching them.  It is very rare that they seem to mind and they mostly come to see what I have done.  I have learnt that it is good to conceal my scruffy disposition and dress up a little, my pink jacket and white hat did not look out of place at Roberta's wedding and the official photographers made me an object of extra interest in their photographs.   I expect one day Roberta will wonder to herself who this strange uninvited guest was, fortunately I have Danilo's email address and I rely on him to explain my unexpected occurrence. 


Caserta : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Palace_of_Caserta
Paestum : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paestum

Villa Castenello https://www.homeaway.co.uk/p6385420?utm_campaign=HAUK_TRV_PAY_HASC_paymentrequest_PPS&utm_content=propid_text_o_lprop&utm_term=20170917&utm_source=SYS&utm_medium=email&haExternalSourceId=c4bda75d-b089-405f-9338-19bec643fdc6+87b3d078-590b-4b36-a27b-c8d84f54b71d-hasc

The villa we stayed in has four double bedrooms and costs about £200 per night.  There is so much I still want to do on the Almalfi coast and I am already planning my next trip!